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August 6, 2012

A group of foundations that support journalism education issued a letter Friday saying that top professionals in the field, not career academics, need to be doing much more of the teaching of journalism students.

As digital media have evolved, so have journalism programs. But the open letter criticized them for not changing quickly enough.

“We believe journalism and communications schools must be willing to recreate themselves if they are able to succeed in playing their vital roles as news creators and innovators. Some leading schools are doing this but most are not,” said the letter addressed to university presidents, and signed by senior officials of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Brett Family Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation.

The letter said that the “teaching hospital” model – where programs not only teach journalism students, but serve their local communities by producing news – has enormous potential. One example of this model is Arizona State University, which houses News 21, an initiative by the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to train a new generation of journalists. The initiative began in 2005 with five programs in the country.

But programs taking part in such initiatives may be the exception.

Eric Newton, senior adviser at the Knight Foundation, said that many journalism schools still teach analog broadcasts and treat newspaper, magazine, radio and television as separate components of a program.

“Students cannot be taught in silos such as print, radio, TV or magazine. There are still journalism programs where there is no experiential or service learning involved,” Newton said. As for journalism faculty members from the “pre-web” days, they need to constantly update their skills, maybe even indulge in “reverse mentoring” and learn about digital media from their students, Newton said.

“If you are in a recession, and you decide to cut the school’s website instead of the newspaper, then that is a problem. The schools should be willing to give up the things that should be given up,” Newton said. “We know that most jobs in journalism now involve digital media. These programs should change like society has changed. If you continue to teach things from the 1980s, you are going to become irrelevant."

He said the main purpose of the letter was to call attention to these problems and to point out that there is a tremendous opportunity for those programs that want to make the transition. Those that don’t, Newton said, will find that their graduates are unemployable in the mass communications industry.

According to Newton, four broad areas in journalism education need change: curricular innovation with programs better-connected with the rest of the university, technological innovations with programs serving as incubators, the teaching of an open collaborative model where schools can share resources with outside organizations, and providing content to the community while engaging in a two-way conversation with its members.

There are some journalism schools that are committed to these areas, where students learn by “doing,” Newton said.

Some examples: The City University of New York has an entrepreneurial journalism program that encourages student innovation by partnering with start-ups or traditional media companies, while Mercer University in Macon, Ga., has teamed up with the The Telegraph, a daily newspaper, and Georgia Public Broadcasting for a collaborative journalism center. Columbia University’s journalism school started a digital project called The New York World last year to provide accountability journalism about state and local government, while journalism students at three public universities in Ohio – University of Akron, Youngstown State University, and Kent State University – have been producing news for regional and statewide media through a partnership called The News Outlet.

Administrators at journalism and mass communication schools said they understand the frustrations of the foundations, but they also said programs are trying hard to keep up with changes in digital technology.

Beth Barnes, director of the school of journalism and telecommunications at the University of Kentucky and president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that programs can't always change quickly. “We have to weigh in the cost factor, and the challenge for faculty to keep up with these changes,” she said.

Regional accrediting bodies have certain expectations about academic faculty, and their rules don’t make it easy to hire faculty members from professional institutions, she said. “Sometimes we have to make the case to administrators to hire someone who doesn’t have a terminal degree, but has current professional experience,” she said.

The letter urged programs to challenge such roadblocks from regional accreditors and suggested that "competence as the primary concern" for faculty in these programs. If they don't, they would have a hard time raising money from the foundations, the letter said.

Barnes said most j-schools are trying to change. “The changes may not happen quickly, but they [the foundations] should keep pushing us,” she said. “It keeps us honest and gives us some leverage we can use on our own campuses."

She said that the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, which is currently reviewing changes to accreditation standards, is likely to add more specific requirements, such as multimedia storytelling. “These changes are going to make us more innovative,” Barnes said.

While the letter from the foundations said it supported efforts by the ACEJMC, which accredits 109 journalism and mass communication schools in the United States, to modernize standards, it also suggested that the organization develop standards that highlight the importance of technology and innovation.

Susanne Shaw, ACEJMC’s executive director and a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, said that one proposed change in standards relates to the number of credit hours a journalism and communications major is required to have outside the major. The previous requirement was 80 credit hours with 65 of those hours coming from the liberal arts and sciences. The proposed new standard would enable 72 credit hours outside the major, but not restricted to the liberal arts and sciences, thus encouraging more collaboration and innovation. “So, for example, those who want to take a business class … we will be able to accommodate those folks,” Shaw said.

Another proposed change in the accrediting standards will let schools offer six hours of credit instead of three for unpaid internships. “Accreditation can only help some of the problems. I also want to help students and faculty get better,” Shaw said. “We are making the changes that the majority of our schools want.”

These proposed changes will be discussed at an ACEJMC meeting later this month, said Shaw, who said the council's members are open to discussing new ideas. Shaw said that the process of revising the standards had been ongoing for a year and a half, while the letter was less than a week old. “The council may want to talk about it. Some people might feel we already address these issues in our standards,” Shaw said, referring to standards for keeping the curriculum “current” and a separate one for equipment and facilities.

She said that the accreditation standards would have to be changed every month if the council were to respond to new technology. “Nothing is perfect. Of course, we are trying to address changes,” Shaw said. Shaw said that the standards already ask for a "current" and "demanding" curriculum and there is a separate standard for resources and equipment.

Susan King, dean of the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, can understand the arguments from both sides. King previously was the vice president for external affairs at the Carnegie Corporation of New York and is well-acquainted with the world of funders.

“I agree that it is imperative to prepare the next generation of journalists, and to prepare them [students] for jobs that do not yet exist,” King said. “We have to prepare them for a digital future that might change twice before the end of the decade.”

King said programs have to constantly sharpen their focus and do so without losing their core values, but added that theoretical research is as important as applied research. “Universities have a greater chance to experiment. Businesses cannot experiment as much,” she said.

She said that she expected someone like Eric Newton to be provocative. “There is this myth that journalism professors spend their time telling stories about what they did,” King said, but her experience had been different. “There is a lot of worthwhile innovation going on. The challenge is to attract more schools to do the same. But I don’t think we are your daddy’s journalism school any more,” King said.

 

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